This posting will be a test of just how hardcore an icon enthusiast you are (or perhaps a test of how peculiar you have really become). In any case, it is lengthy and detailed. Prepare yourself.
The Unburnt Thornbush (Neopalimaya Kupina) icon of Mary is of particular interest because it represents the very “pagan” notion that a painted icon of divine figures has the power to protect from fire. In old Russia, if a house or building burst into flame, people would stand holding this icon facing the fire in the belief that it would be extinguished. It was also hung to protect dwellings from fire. Given that wooden buildings and dwellings were very common, and fire a constant threat, it is not surprising that this “fire insurance” icon was so popular, particularly among the Old Believers.
There is much to say about this type. Its origins are a mixture of references to Old Testament events, to symbolic references to Mary found in the Akathist hymn and canon, and a good portion of it comes simply from apocryphal writings such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, particularly those portions relating to the angels surrounding the central figure of Mary holding the child Christ (Christ Emmanuel).
The Russian type, which began to spread in the late 16th century, is quite different than the standard Greek type, which depicts Mary in the Burning Bush of the Book of Exodus.
It is a detailed icon, and rather intimidating for the beginning student because of its unusual iconography and often detailed and unfamiliar inscriptions. Nonetheless, it is a visually attractive type, being in the “mandala” form that the psychoanalyst Carl Jung considered a symbol of wholeness.
In discussing the iconography of this type, one should keep in mind that there are variations from example to example, both in the figures included and in the inscriptions, though they are usually variations on the same basic concepts. Different painters might arrange figures differently and vary the inscriptions according to the models available to them and according to their own understanding. And painters sometimes did not understand their models well, or made mistakes.
The particular icon I will use as the primary example of the type is very well painted, and pleasing both in its figures and in its calligraphy. Other examples will vary somewhat, but if you understand this example, you should be able to see the essence of the type through such variations.
Let’s look at it:
As you see, the icon consists of an image of Mary and the Christ Child (Christ Immanuel) set in a bright circle in the center of a blue and red eight-pointed slava (“glory”) symbolizing not only the Eighth Day of Creation (the “Day of Eternity”) but also the Godhood in its two manifestations of light and dark, that which is revealed and that which is a mystery (the “Divine Dark”). If you have mystical tendencies, you might like to view the light and red part as the cataphatic approach to spirituality through words and descriptions and concepts, and the dark blue part as the apophatic approach through negation, though getting rid of words and descriptions and concepts. Or you could just forget all of that and see it as a pretty red and a pretty blue, as did most Russian iconographers.
Mary is surrounded by angels, both in the blue quadrangle and in the outer “petals” that form an elongated simple rose-like form.
In the four corners, like the metal corners on an old bound book, are Old Testament scenes considered prefigurations of Mary.
So that is the icon in general. Now let’s get specific, beginning with the well-written calligraphic vyaz’ title inscription:
To help you out a little, I will separate the words, put them into modern Cyrillic, transliterate them, and translate them. Superscript (“written above”) letters will be in parentheses, and omitted letters will be added in brackets. The letter Ы, which some transliterate as Y, I will give more phonetically as UI. Words grammatically implied will be in lower case:
ОБРАЗ — OBRA(Z) — the “IMAGE”
НЕОПАЛИМЫЯ — NEOPALIMUIYA — of the “UNBURNT”
КУПИНЫ — KUPINUI — “THORNBUSH”
ПРЕС(ВЯ)ТЫЯ — PRESVYATUIYA — “MOST-HOLY”
Б[ОГОРО](Д)[И]ЦЫ — BOGORODITSUI — “GOD-BIRTHER”
All together, they give us OBRAZ NEOPALIMUIYA KUPINUI PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODTSUI, “the IMAGE of the UNBURNT THORNBUSH GOD-BIRTHER,
or to put it in more normal English, “The image of the Unburnt Thornbush Most Holy Mother of God.” Bogoroditsa is the Slavic term equivalent to Theotokos in Greek, meaning “one who gives birth to God.”
So now we know the title. It is the “Unburnt Thornbush” image of Mary.
Now for the iconography. We will begin at the center circle:
The large figure is obviously Mary, as indicated by the MP ΘΥ “Meter Theou” abbreviation above her, meaning “Mother of God.”
She is holding Christ Immanuel, the child Jesus, as indicated by the IC XC “Iesous Khristos” abbreviation above his head. He holds a rolled scroll in his left hand and blesses with his right.
On Mary’s breast is a smaller image of Jesus robed as a bishop, the “Great High Priest.” He is above a rocky hill. This image symbolizes the Heavenly Jerusalem, in which Christ is Great High Priest in the temple. The rocky hill is in some examples more obviously a stone on her breast, signifying the “Stone not cut by human hands” of Daniel 2:45: “Forasmuch as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver and the gold.” This signifies the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary, supposedly born without the participation of a human male.
On Mary’s left shoulder is another crowned image, but in red; this is Jesus as “Sophia, Wisdom of God.” In that form he is shown as an angel with a red face. I should add that some people identify this figure rather loosely as Christ as Tsar Slavui, “King of Glory,” but in this example Sophia better fits the iconography.
Under Mary’s right hand is a ladder. This is one of her symbols. In the Akathist hymn are the words “Rejoice, Heavenly Ladder by which God descended.” So Mary symbolically is the “ladder” that gave birth to the heavenly Christ.
That was not too difficult, was it? Well, as the saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” It is time to look at the figures in the outer points of the eight-pointed slava.
First we will look at the four in the red quadrangle. They are the symbols of the Four Evangelists:
This figure, in the form of an angel with a book, is Еуаггелистъ Матфей — Euangelist Matfei — the Evangelist Matthew, holding his gospel.
This figure is Еуаггелистъ Марко, Euangelist Marko, the Evangelist Mark. He is depicted as an eagle holding his gospel.
This is Еуаггелистъ Лука — Euagelist Luka — the Evangelist Luke. He is depicted as an ox, and holds his gospel.
This figure is Еуаггелистъ Иоаннъ — Euangelist Ioann — the Evangelist John.
So much for the easy parts of the main image. Now we move on to less familiar figures — the angels in the blue quadrangle of the slava:
First, there is this multi-winged angel. Traditionally a seraph is painted red and a cherubim (Russians always use the plural for the singular in this case) blue, but some painters do not follow this strictly, and this figure has no inscription. But we will assume a seraph is intended, due to the fiery nature of this icon.
The inscription on these two “blue” angelic figures reads: Духъ бури Аггли Ветра — Dukh buri Angli Vyetra — “the Spirit of Storms, the Angel of Wind.”
This angel at the bottom of the blue quadrangle is identified by inscription as Аггелъ Господень Приноситъ Молитву и Кадило к Богу — Angel Gospoden Prinosit Molitvu i Kadilo k Bogu — “the Angel of the Lord — Brings Prayer and the censer to God.” Some like to think of him as the “Angel of unceasing prayer.”
The final angel in the blue quadrangle is this one:
The inscription reads: И Облаком Аггел дуги — I oblakom Angel dugi — “And of clouds, the Angel of rainbows.”
Now on to the angels in the outer “petals.” of the mandala. First, top left:
The inscription reads: Творяи Агглы своя служение снегу и инею — Tvoryai Angli svoya sluzhenie snegu i ineiu — “He makes his angels serving snow and hoar frost.” You will notice another inscription in red just above the “green” angel’s head, but we will deal with that later.
The inscription here reads Духъ силы Аггелъ росы и мглы — Dukh silui Angel rosui i mglui — “the Spirit of Power, the Angel of dew and fog.”
The inscription is: Духъ силы Аггелъ творяи мраз и ледъ благоразумно подая всем спасение — Dukh silui angel tvoryai mraz i led blagorazumno podya vsem spasenie — “the Spirit of Power, the angel making frost and ice — wisely presents to all salvation.”
The inscription is: Духъ благочестия Аггела мести нанасупостаты подая чашу горести — Dukh blagochestiya Angel mesti na supostatui podaya chashu goresti — “The Spirt of Piety, the Angel of vengeance on enemies, presenting the Cup of Woe.
The inscription: Духъ разума Аггелъ возбуждая от века спящия — Dukh razuma Angel vozbuzhdaya ot veka spyashchiya — “the Angel of Reason, who rouses from an age of sleep.”
The inscription is: Аггелъ паления сиреч хотящаго быти от праведнаго суди и поделомъ — Angel paleniya sirech khotyashchago buiti ot pravednago sudi i podelom — The Angel of Burning, who will be sent forth by the Righteous Judge and according to [their] works.
The inscription reads: Духъ страха божия аггелъ возгремения и молни и страшное проявляетъ пришествие — Dukh strakha bozhiya angel vozgremeniya i molni i strashnoe proyavlyaet prishestvie — “the Spirit of the Fear of God, Angel of thunder and lightning, and frightfully reveals the [second] Coming”
The inscription is: Духъ премудрости аггелъ огня паляща сиреч будушее онаго века поведаетъ — Dukh premdrosti angel ognya palyasha sirech budushee onago veka povedaet — “the Spirit of Wisdom, angel of of burning fire who announces the future of the present age.”
Now we will return to the left-out word that I mentioned earlier by a top figure, in fact there are several such words arranged widely-spaced around the outer edge of the “rose.” To understand their meaning, we have to assemble them, because they belong together I have left them at the angles on which they appear, to help you place them on the image:
Angelui – (“the angels…”
Svoya — “of him…”
Dukhi — “spirits…”
I slugi — “and the servants…”
Svoya — “of him…”
Ogn — “a fire…”
Pyalyashch — “burning.”
To put it all together in normal English, “Who makes his angels spirits, his servants a burning flame.” This is the Slavic version of Hebrews 1:7: “And of the angels he says, Who makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.”
There are a number of apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements, but one of the most obvious is the Book of Jubilees, Chapter 2:
“And the angel of the presence spake to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying: Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works.
For on the first day He created the heavens which are above and the earth and the waters and all the spirits which serve before him -the angels of the presence, and the angels of sanctification, and the angels [of the spirit of fire and the angels] of the spirit of the winds, and the angels of the spirit of the clouds, and of darkness, and of snow and of hail and of hoar frost, and the angels of the voices and of the thunder and of the lightning, and the angels of the spirits of cold and of heat, and of winter and of spring and of autumn and of summer and of all the spirits of his creatures which are in the heavens and on the earth; (He created) the abysses and the darkness, eventide <and night>, and the light, dawn and day, which He hath prepared in the knowledge of his heart.
And thereupon we saw His works, and praised Him, and lauded before Him on account of all His works; for seven great works did He create on the first day.”
One can see that the components of this icon have a great deal to do with fire and burning and lightning, as well as with frost, ice, rain and clouds. When one combines these with the “fire” attributes of Mary, it is not difficult to understand how the belief arose that this icon could control the elements and subdue fire.
Now let’s look at the prefigurations of Mary in the four corners of the icon:
The inscription reads: Видехъ купину огнем горяща и незгараему рече Господь о купиныи изуи сапогъ с ногу твоему но немже ты тоиши место свято есть — “I saw a bush burning with fire and not consumed; the Lord said of the bush, take off the shoes from your feet, for this place on which you stand is holy.”
We see Моисей — Moses — kneeling to take of his shoes as he looks toward the Burning Bush in which Mary is seen in the “Znemie” — “Sign” form with the child Jesus. An angel is at left of the bush. This image signifies that the Burning Bush of Moses was a prefiguration of Mary, who in her pregnancy with Jesus was filled with the fire of divinity, yet was not consumed.
The incident is recorded in Exodus 3:
1 Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.
2 And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.
3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.
4 And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.
5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon you stand is holy ground.
That is taken from Isaiah 11, considered a prediction of Jesus in Eastern Orthodoxy:
1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
This “Rod of Jesse” image is sometimes replaced by that of Isaiah’s lips being purified by the fire of a coal taken from the altar by a seraph. (Isaiah 6:5-7); Mary was considered purified by being pregnant with the “fire of God.”
The inscription is: Спя Иаков на пути и виде лествицу утверждену на землие иже глава досязаше до небеси и аггли божий восхождаху и изходашу по ней — “Jacob slept on the way and saw a ladder set up on earth, the head of which reached to heaven, and angels of God ascending and descending on it.”
It comes from Genesis 28:12:
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
This ladder in Eastern Orthodoxy is considered a prefiguration of Mary, the “ladder” by which Christ descended from heaven to earth. The Akathist hymn says, “Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God descended.”
The inscription reads: Иезкииль видехъ от востока врата затворена никтоже проидетъ ими токмо Господь богъ израилев — “Ezekiel saw in the East a closed door; no one goes through it but the Lord God of Israel.”
It comes from Ezekiel 44:1-2:
1 Then he brought me back the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary which looks toward the east; and it was shut.
2 Then said the Lord unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.
This closed door too is a prefiguration of Mary, the “Door of Solemn Mystery” in the Akathist hymn. It symbolizes the perpetual virginity of Mary in giving birth to Jesus. Of course these prefigurations are just the result of theologians reading Mary back into the Old Testament.
Now that I have discussed this interesting and detailed type of the Unburnt Thornbush, there are, as mentioned earlier, variations on this type. Some examples show only the central figure of Mary and Child on the slava with the symbols of the Four Evangelists around them. A later, commonly State Church type shows, in place of the angels of weather and apocalypse, the archangels.
In the latter case, the Archangel Michael holds a rod, Raphael holds an alabastron (alabaster vessel), Uriel holds a flaming sword, Selaphiel holds a censer, Barakhiel holds Grapes, and Gabriel holds a branch from Paradise.
To finish this very long posting, I should add that the Greek depictions of the type are quite different from the Russian. The Greeks call their version η Βάτος η Φλεγομένη — He Vatos he Phlegoumeni — The Bush [the] Burning, or simply η Φλεγομένη Βάτος – “The Burning Bush.”